Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,170 pages of information and 233,417 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
Note: This is an abridged version of a chapter in British Commerce and Industry 1934
In 1920 two of the leading pencil manufacturers in England decided that the time had arrived for a concentration of effort - the house of Arthur Johnson, which had been established in 1803 by the well-known Cohen family, later known as B. S. Cohen; and the equally if not more famous firm of E. Wolff and Sons, dating even farther back to 1796, with certain lines of pencils whose reputation was such that they found their way — as they continue to do — into all the markets of the world, into the very homes of pencil making like Austria and Germany, also into the prohibitive sphere of the United States of America, despite the varying altitudes allotted to the tariff wall.
At that time both firms had come through a period of adventitious prosperity due to the war. A prosperity of an extremely undesirable and unhealthy kind, in that Government demands for pencils received priority over those through the ordinary trade channels, from which an international connection had been built up over a hundred years. So undesirable and unhealthy, in fact, that to see British-made pencils in the retailers' shops in England itself was a rare sight. Indeed, nearly all pencils on sale in the country were of foreign origin.
England during the war became almost the sole manufacturer of pencils for all the Allied Governments. Without pencils it would have been impossible for clerical staffs and draughtsmen to perform that essential work which is the preliminary to the manufacture of commodities and war munitions. Without pencils it would have been difficult to manufacture rifles, shells and guns, to build submarines, destroyers and battle-cruisers, and to move armies in the field.
Hence the complete isolation in which these two businesses found themselves at the end of the great war. Both the domestic and overseas markets had been abandoned by them and, as a result, were in the hands of foreign competitors. The first post-war task, therefore, was to regain old markets and wrest them from competitors, and to achieve this the two firms united and became the Royal Sovereign Pencil Company Limited, with a capital of half-a-million sterling.
To make effective an offensive and defensive alliance of this character implied a sweeping reorganization for an intensive campaign. Three separate factories were concerned with the manufacture, or some stage in the manufacture, of their pencils. These were situated in Central London, the City and at Neasden, on the outskirts of London. After consideration it was decided to close down by degrees the Central London factories, and to expand the factory at Neasden, which was comparatively new, until all processes could be conducted under one central organization.
As a result, England is now able to boast of one of the most modernly equipped and largest pencil-making factories in the world, and it has been named, not inappropriately, the Britannia Pencil Works.
A pencil may be a trivial article, but it is one of the necessities of modern life. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then the pencil is mightier than the pen. It is whittled down in our service, at all times our friend, helpmate, remembrancer, and recorder—whether wearing its showcase complexion or hacked and nibbled by the waywardness of our weak natures.
A pencil, everybody knows, consists of two parts—viz.: the lead and the wood in which it is encased. Let us begin with the lead.
This was originally obtained from large blocks of graphite, and the English source of supply came from Borrowdale in Cumberland. About 1840, however, this source had to be conserved. The price of graphite became almost prohibitive, and pencil manufacturers in this and other countries exercised their minds for an alternative material. As in so many of the inventions and new methods in industry, England took the initiative in this. Our forefathers in the early dawn of civilization began to leave records of themselves by inscribing upon clay. In writing with a pencil to-day we do not write on clay, but with clay, for the lead itself is a mixture of graphite and clay.
Mr. Elias Wolff, founder of the Wolff interests, conceived the idea of mixing powdered graphite with clay. This mixture he ground between millstones until he obtained the necessary fineness. Adding the necessary amount of water he then continued with a process of wet-grinding. Then he removed most of the moisture and compressed the compound, now in its desired state, into thin strips for laying into the wood. This method is being pursued to-day, except that the early hand appliances have been superseded by huge batteries of automatic fine-grinding mills and presses driven by power.
The degree of hardness or softness of the lead in a modern pencil is dependent upon the proportion of clay and graphite in the finished lead. In the Royal Sovereign Company's ranges of pencils, the softest grade ("6B") contains the maximum quantity of graphite, which is reduced down the scale to the "6H" grade, the hardest, containing the minimum. The softest ranges are favoured by artists, the medium by clerical workers, whilst the hard ranges are essential to the work of draughtsmen in all industries. The process of preparing the clay, and freeing it from grit and foreign matter, is laborious; and the further process of combining it with graphite in such a way as to ensure a smooth and silky mixture calls for great patience; for even with the finest of modern fine- grinding mills, the grinding of each batch is continued for two or three weeks.
Naturally, the exact composition of this mixture, the formulae and methods of treatment are known only to the company. From the mills the mixture proceeds to hydraulic presses to eliminate excessive moisture, leaving the substance in shape and texture like a cheese. From these presses it is filled into a metal cylinder, at the lower end of which is a sapphire pierced by a small hole. Hydraulic pressure is brought to bear on the mass, forcing it through this minute hole, and giving it the required shape and size for ultimately fitting into the wood of the pencil. Emerging from the cylinder in a continuous thread, it is cut into lengths and laid on boards for drying. This process of drying is again very lengthy.
When sufficiently dry the strips are cut into lengths required for pencils, placed in air-tight crucibles, and baked in ovens at exceedingly high temperatures. This is an important process, for the firing of a lead pencil is considered to be as delicate an operation as that of the finest porcelain. Instruments are installed for the recording of the temperatures of kilns which are automatically registered on a chart every two minutes throughout the day. Finally the leads are boiled in fat, and after very careful examination and test are ready for encasing in wood.
Romance may be woven around the wood that goes to the making of a lead pencil. The red cedar of America has held the field for the best pencils. Its botanical name, Juniperus Virginiana, reveals it as a native of Virginia, although there are further belts in Alabama and Florida. This source of supply has for some years been running short. The early English settlers in the States used this timber to build their shacks and to fence around their settlements. So important has the wood become for the manufacture of the best lead pencils that the American States have been scoured for any available supplies, and the wood used by the early English settlers for fencing has been bought and replaced by wire and other material. In order to ensure its supplies the Royal Sovereign Company have made such large purchases in the past that they have sufficient reserves for many years to come.
In addition, the company investigated the possibilities of other timbers, and have recently taken the controlling interest in the Aynek Syndicate Ltd., for the purpose of encouraging an Empire timber from Kenya Colony. A great deal of progress has been made in the conditioning of this wood for the manufacture of pencils, and the work of research is still proceeding under the supervision of the chemical department of the company.
Red cedar is shipped to England in small slats about 7+ in. long and 4 in. thick, and in widths varying from 4 in. to 21 in.
After drying, these slats are ready for placing in a wood-working machine. First, little channels or grooves are cut along their length, the depth of the grooves being exactly half the thickness of the lead. A coating of glue is then superimposed on the grooved side. Leads are placed in the grooves, and covered with another grooved slat. The glued slats are then placed under pressure until fixed. After drying they are ready for the further attention of the wood-working machines, through which they are passed for shaping and separating into pencils. The shaped pencils proceed to automatic machines, which sandpaper them ready for colouring. The colouring machines are also automatic, the pencils being forced through a bath containing the colour and dried on a travelling belt. The number of coats to each pencil varies according to the colour and quality of the pencil. Hight coats represent the average, but with some of the more expensive pencils, more than double this number are applied. Until recently, the pencils were finished by hand, the process consisting of french polishing. To-day, french polishing has been superseded by a mechanical process of cellulose finishing by machinery. The ends are then trimmed and cleaned by another machine. Such, in broad terms, is the manufacture of the modern lead pencil.
Including all ranges of pencils—cheap lines, special lines, and the high-grade "Royal Sovereign" series (6H to 6B) the company are responsible for over five hundred different pencils, each of which has its special public. Normal activity involves an output which is close upon a million a week, and this output can be maintained even with the highest quality pencils. The complexity of the necessary arrangements to be made will be appreciated when it is realized that the preparation of the materials for a high-grade pencil occupies many more weeks than are required for the cheaper lines. The production programme is arranged for periods of six months and is subject to review and modification every three months.
Method and organization, therefore, begin with the arranging of the production programme. They are observable, too, in the detail of processes, and in the very lay-out of each department. The cleanliness of the buildings, plant, fittings, and employees impresses the visitor. Graphite and clay, or lead, are not kind to the appearance of workers if they are careless, but the overalls and faces of the workers— both men and women—at the Britannia Works, are very creditable indeed, even after a full day's work. Neither is there any surplus material littered around the machines. In the wood-working departments where machines are shaping the pencils from the slats, the wood shavings and sawdust are taken up by suction tubes when they leave the machines, and collected into a central store, where they are packed for dispatch to certain British chemical manufacturers for the extraction of essential oils. There is therefore no waste in the use of the raw materials. Even in the lead itself, exact pencil lengths are not cut until the baking stage is reached. Waste is therefore almost eliminated, for all the lead is brought into manufacturing stock, if surplus, before baking, as it cannot be thus utilized after the baking process.
Method and organization, too, are applied in the costing of each process, and of each batch passing from one process to another. Each department, therefore, has a responsibility, and, by the numbering of batches, each group of workers within a department. So detailed, in fact, is the arrangement of the work, that the management are able to gauge differences of small fractions in the cost of successive batches, and to trace defects immediately to a particular machine or individual.
Similarly with the quality of output. Tests are frequent until the final stage is reached, when they are applied with even greater severity to the finished pencil. One of these tests is to ensure that a pencil has been correctly classified in its degree of softness or hardness, and a special department is engaged on this work alone. This has been found to be of great importance, in that members of the public have a nice taste. If they favour a particular line they note the standard of every new purchase. For example, artists and draughtsmen can be eloquent correspondents on the subject of their pencils.
Not only through artists and draughtsmen, but through other large sections of the public, the Royal Sovereign Pencil Company is made aware of the state of public opinion and, indeed, of the state of the public's pocket. Following the depression which commenced in 1929 there was a substantial fall in the demand for the high-grade "Royal Sovereign" range. Until then large British firms had found it economical to equip all their clerical staffs, from the highest to the lowest, with the "Royal Sovereign," rather than with any of the same firm's cheaper products, as from their recent experience it had proved itself to be a lasting pencil. But the necessity for retrenchment tempted many to turn to the cheaper lines, particularly for the use of their rank and file. The change, however, was only temporary, for they discovered that their expenditure on pencils became even higher than before.
In addition to the "Royal Sovereign" range, the company is famous for its "Spanish Graphite" pencil, which is in general favour with banks and the higher officials of public bodies. This has been on the market for over a hundred years, and it boasts the largest sale in the world for any high-class pencil upon which not a single penny has ever been spent in advertising. There are therefore two classes of pencil— the advertised and the unadvertised. The constant repetition of advertisements is generally the death-knell of the unadvertised article. Not so in the case of the "Spanish Graphite." Its vitality persists in spite of the clamours of surrounding campaigns, a notable exception in our latter-day kaleidoscope of sales publicity.
High Court Judges and members of the Peerage carry the famous Wolff "J" pencil, which is supplied to the Law Courts and the House of Lords. Similarly with the Wolff range of carbon pencils known across the counter, whether in France, Turkey, America, Germany, or South America, by the mere monosyllabic request for a "Wolff"! Artists' supply houses all over the world know these carbons, as they have continued to break down all the trade barriers that have been conceived since 1918.
Such then in summary is the Royal Sovereign Pencil Company's productive organization, and such are its leading products. The welfare, health and recreation of the staff have not been overlooked. Social life is provided outside the hours of work, by playing fields for football, cricket and tennis, and a central canteen and dining-room for meals. Since 1922 the company has been under the chairmanship of Mr. Walter Henderson-Cleland, M.C., whose interests in other fields of British industry are wide.
The first managing director of the Royal Sovereign Pencil Company was the late Mr. Arthur Johnson, who filled that post with distinction from 1920 until the time of his death in 1926, and he laid the foundations and commenced the building up of the present organization. Mr. Percy Charnaud succeeded Mr. Johnson in 1926 and has been managing director since that date.
No more eloquent testimonial of good administration can be found than is disclosed in the recently published balance sheet for the financial year ended December 31st, 1932, which shows a substantial increase in profits over the previous year, in spite of a decrease in turnover. A very unusual state of affairs in these disastrous times of acute depression. Finally, having been appointed manufacturers of pencils to H.M. King George V, the company is proud to be able to make use of the Royal Coat of Arms.
In spite of the protection afforded to their foreign rivals by the high tariffs in their own countries, the Royal Sovereign Pencil Company can safely claim to be the company which has retained the greatest measure of prosperity, and has generally made the greatest progress of all the pencil companies during the last ten years.